The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in North-west Europe


There can be little doubt that agriculture is an exceptionally dynamic evolutionary relationship. That it should be correlated with sweeping changes in the life and subsistence of human societies is not in the least surprising.

Rindos 1984, 284

Following the beginning of the Holocene, agricultural economies developed independently in several different parts of the world. This change – from hunting and foraging to farming – marks a fundamental change in subsistence and economic practice. Without farming it is unlikely that civilisation (i.e. state societies) would have ever developed, and we might still be living as hunter-gatherers today. The adoption of agriculture, therefore, is an important issue in understanding the history of modern man and the development of modern societies.

However, an equally important issue is how agriculture came to replace hunter-gatherer economies outside of the original areas of agricultural development. Agriculture can require more effort and time than hunting and gathering (e.g. Dennell 1985) and may be less healthy (e.g. Cohen 1989). Why, then, did hunter-gatherers change to farmers?

Specifically, this report will focus on the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in north-west Europe. This study is not a historical summary of archaeological thought on the move from hunting and gathering to farming, nor is it concerned with the origin of agriculture per se.

The literature relevant to the topic of this report is diverse and extensive, and it is only possible to discuss a fraction of it here.

The Mesolithic

Essentially, the Mesolithic is a northern Old World temperate and boreal adaptation. Comparable cultural adaptations from the southern hemisphere are best left out of the mesolithic ambit for historical reasons, while in the New World, postglacial societies faced different conditions, which played an important role in their development.

Zvelebil 1986a, 7

Definition and Context

‘The Mesolithic’, although an accepted term in archaeology ‘[f]or at least the last 60 years’ (Zvelebil 1986a, 5), suffers from a lack of accepted definition. Different identities can be given to the Mesolithic depending upon how it is defined – whether chronologically, technologically, environmentally or economically (see Zvelebil 1986 for discussion on this point). Here it shall be defined chronologically by beginning at the turn of the Holocene and economically by a primarily hunter and gathering subsistence-base (foraged resources accounting for at least 50% of consumed calories) adapted to environmental changes following the end of the Late Glacial. This definition allows for a wide range of social, economic and residential systems within the broad term ‘Mesolithic’.

Instead of taking a world-wide view of the change from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic it seems sensible to study a defined area – north-west Europe – thus avoiding generalizations between regions which might not be analogous due to differences in, for example, environment factors, while also allowing a reasonable amount of detail to be included.

Environment, Economy and Social Structure

‘The transition from a full glacial to an interglacial climatic regime which occurred between c.13ka and 10ka BP was reflected in the rapid wastage of the great ice sheets and mountain glaciers of the Northern Hemisphere, in a contraction of the periglacial domain, and in the initiation of a vegetation succession which resulted in a change from arctic tundra to closed woodland over much of Europe … within the timescale of a few thousand years. Dramatic changes also occurred in fluvial regimes, erosional activity and pedogenesis. Moreover, following the release into the oceans of enormous quantities of meltwater from the wasting ice sheets, global sea level rose by over 100m, completely changing the configuration of coastal regions in many areas around the Atlantic basin’ (Bell and Walker 1992, 82).

Changes in the fauna were also marked. Although, ‘in general, the available biomass increased with the transition from late glacial to post-glacial conditions, … the concentration of resources at the herbivore trophic level was replaced by a variety of species occupying different positions within the food-web and creating new food chains. This has contributed to the restructuring of the whole ecosystem and inevitably involved a redefinition of the human position within it’ (Zvelebil 1986b, 168). Of especial importance to human communities would have been the loss of the megafauna and the large, migratory herd-species, which were probably easy ‘to exploit in terms of organisation and technology’ (ibid., 173).

These changes in the environment would have required the human communities to undergo changes as well; changes in subsistence and economic patterns which would likely affect their social structures too (Green 1980).

How successfully the human communities coped with these changes in environment has been a source of debate. Initially, this period seemed to possess little in the way of cultural remains and it was concluded that ‘Europe was … populated by impoverished Mesolithic hunters and gatherers who lost much of their capacity for economic and social relations’ (Fagan 1995, 161). This view has been criticised following improvements in the understanding of hunter-gatherer social, cultural and economic diversity and success, and the Mesolithic has been re-interpreted in light of this evidence, and in the light of growing archaeological data. Mesolithic societies are now attributed with major technological advances, both in stone (e.g. microliths) and in other materials, as well as innovative interactions with their environment, such the domestication of the dog (although this may not have been a European innovation; as with agriculture, this may have been a development originating in the Near East) and resource management, e.g. burning of woodland to promote new growth, increase productivity and aid hunting (there is a fairly large amount of evidence for forest burning from Britain, but considerably less for the European mainland). Hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic are now seen as adapting excellently to the environmental changes, exploiting a wider range of resources from a wider range of habitats than ever before. The Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer economies, based mostly on large herd mammals such as reindeer, bison and mammoth, were replaced by the broad-spectrum Mesolithic economies, which generally exploited a range of resources from woodland animals like red deer and aurochs to nuts and shellfish. This alteration in subsistence patterns was likely to have caused alterations in patterns of mobility, social structure and group size. The increased patchiness and less concentrated nature of the available resources may have required a greater degree of mobility and smaller communities to exploit them, but each community would not require so much land due to the overall increase in foraging return rates and the carry capacity of the environment, allowing more communities to inhabit an area than previously.

Population density during the Mesolithic is difficult to assess but the general consensus currently seems to be that the population by the time of the end of the Mesolithic was ‘probably the largest that had inhabited Europe to that time’ (Denell 1985, 121). Although this view is not agreed upon (e.g. Whittle 1996), it is not unreasonable to conclude that an increase in the exploitation of resources, such as the adoption of broad-spectrum subsistence strategies, would be followed by population growth (Fagan 1995, 154).

The description given so far of the Mesolithic is a fairly orthodox one, and represents general modern archaeological thought. That is not to say it is agreed upon by all archaeologists, and some criticisms have been directed at these conclusions, based on different interpretations of the archaeological record. For example, Woodman argues that ‘the contrast between the latest phases of the Paleolithic and the beginning of the Mesolithic may have been enhanced by the relative paucity of archaeological material in the early Mesolithic. Too much emphasis may have been placed on the role of the reindeer in cultures such as the Magdalenian or the Ahrensburgian and not enough paid to the fact that heavy reliance on reindeer was in itself often one of many short-term adaptations in a rapidly changing environment. Therefore, the final shift to Postglacial conditions must be seen as only one of several changes occurring within the preceding few millennia’ (Woodman 1985, 327). Environmental evidence does show that the major changes were occurring in the 3,000 or so years prior to the end the Late Glacial (Bell and Walker 1992).

The poor quality and quantity of archaeological data for the Mesolithic is a constant stumbling-block, which limits not just the extent of our knowledge about the Mesolithic but also our ability to understand the cultural processes which both started and ended this period.

Although, as mentioned above, mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups in general may have been small and quite mobile, there are exceptions to this – complex, sedentary (or at least semi-sedentary) societies with a relatively high population density. Complex hunter-gatherer societies, because they differ almost totally from the ‘traditional’ image of hunter-gatherers, are difficult to define (Price 1985). Although called ‘hunter-gatherers’ to differentiate them from agriculturalists, they seem to have more in common socially with agricultural communities (high population density, socioeconomic inequalities (i.e. social stratification), food storage, sedentism) than with ‘egalitarian’ (non-complex) hunter-gatherers (Testart 1982). This is an important issue when considering the transition to agriculture between areas of egalitarian hunter-gatherers and those of complex hunter-gatherers.

The Transition to Farming in North-West Europe

Few would consciously maintain that there is a sudden direct transformation of society and economy, or still less of population, which draws the curtain on the Mesolithic and ushers in new farming communities.

Armit and Finlayson 1992, 674

For a long time the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in north-west Europe was believed to have been the result of immigrating colonists from the Near East, spreading up through south-east Europe. This model has come under increasing attack, with the assertion that in north-west Europe indigenous mesolithic communities were, to a greater or lesser extent, responsible for the transition (e.g. Dennell 1985, Zvelebil 1986a, b, Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy 1986, Hodder 1990, Armit and Finlayson 1992, Pattern 1994, Sherratt 1990, 1994, Whittle 1996). This change may, in part, be due to the re-appraisal of the Mesolithic, a change in archaeological thought and theory (recently ideology and social transformation have become a popular topic in archaeological interpretation) and as the result of fresh (archaeological, environmental, ethnological) information.

However, the extent of indigenous hunter-gatherers involvement in the transition, and the actual process of transition itself, is not agreed upon. As mentioned above, farming is not necessarily quicker, easier or healthier than hunting and gathering, so if the change to agriculture was not through colonization and replacement, why did hunter-gatherers choose to make the change? As with the origin of agriculture itself, proposed answers to this question have usually focused on environmental factors (e.g. climatic conditions or insufficient resources), population density and social transformation. However, no one of these factors alone seem capable of necessitating the observed change, so an explanation must include an analysis on how these factors operated together to result in the eventual transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Given the need to account not only for how north-west European mesolithic societies changed to neolithic ones but also why, an obvious issue is the relationship between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers. If agriculture was adopted, by which is meant a borrowing of techniques and economic practice, the interaction between the groups borrowing and the groups being borrowed from is clearly of central importance. Zvelebil (1986a, b) and Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy (1986) have examined the transition from mesolithic to neolithic economy in terms of the frontier between the two, and have divided this transition into three phases: the availability phase, the substitution phase and the consolidation phase. This system, which analyses change in subsistence strategies, assumes that hunter-gatherer societies are aware of the farming practices carried out by their agricultural neighbours and that some contact exists between the two groups; this is the position during the availability phase. The next phase occurs when elements of farming begin to be practised on the hunter-gatherer side of the frontier, through adoption by hunter-gatherer societies or expansion of agriculturalists. The consolidation phase represents the final stage of transition, when farming becomes the major subsistence mode. Once the substitution phase is finished, the transition is complete and the frontier will have moved on. The phases themselves may take different amounts of time to complete from region to region, but it is argued that a considerable amount of time could pass between the beginning of the first phase and the ending of the final phase (Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy 1986). Although this model considers only chronology, geography and subsistence economy, this is not necessarily a flaw when one understands that it ‘does not attempt to find an underlying cause for the transition to farming. Rather, it provides a descriptive framework for the process’ (Zvelebil 1986a: 13).

Dennell (1985) has also considered frontier interactions, and outlined the possible relationships which could have existed between farmers and hunter-gatherers.

As mentioned at the end of the previous section, hunter-gatherer societies can be broadly classified into egalitarian and complex societies. Given the differences between the two, it is predictable that relationships between agriculturalists and egalitarian hunter-gatherers and between agriculturalists and complex hunter-gatherers would have contrasted significantly. This would have made a significant difference in the progress of transition in areas where complex hunter-gatherer lived when compared to areas where egalitarian hunter-gatherers lived. For example, it has been noted that the transition to farming in European Atlantic coastal areas was significantly slower than in other areas. This can be explained by the fact that these areas are ‘[f]rom the viewpoint of natural resources, … among the most productive in the temperate zone’ (Zvelebil 1986, 86). Mesolithic societies (and possibly earlier Palaeolithic societies – e.g. Keeley 1991) in these areas were able to intensively exploit aquatic resources, allowing them to have a high population density, sedentary settlements, and complex social organisation. (The link between intensive aquatic resource use and complex hunter-gatherer societies is well attested in the ethnographic literature (e.g. Keeley 1991, Kelly 1995).) This economic and social structure can be seen as an alternative to farming and so there would be little need for such groups to change. The reason for the eventual replacement of the complex hunter-gathering societies by agricultural societies is ‘best attributed to a number of causes, depending on the conditions within each region. In some areas, such as Denmark or Finland, a decline in the traditional, aquatic resources precipitated the transition to farming. In others, however, farming appears to have been adopted for reasons other than demographic stress… [T]he role of forager-farmer contact, exchange and the consequent need for increased production [may be] the contributing causes of the transition to farming in Scandinavia’ (Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy 1986, 88-89).

Discussion and Conclusion

There is no reason why hunter-gatherers in temperate Europe should have returned from contact with early farming communities bearing the entire Neolithic package of pottery, polished stone, domestic plants and animals, and filled with an impulse to build villagesand inhabit them year-round. Rather, they would probably have selected the techniques and/or resources that they thought would be useful and adapted them to their own ends.

Dennell 1985, 136

The evidence seems highly in favour of a diffusion of agricultural techniques into north-west Europe rather than a displacement of indigenous hunter-gatherers by invasive farmers. This shift in subsistence was not a sudden change to a recognisably superior method of resource exploitation, but a gradual adoption. The adoption would be encouraged by a number of factors; social, economic and demographic.

At the initial introduction of farming, economically and socially, into areas at the border of north-west Europe, many different influences and pressures could have begun to affect the indigenous hunter-gatherers. The farmers, even if they were hunter-gatherers themselves who had adopted agriculture from one of their neighbours, may restrict access to part of the territory of a hunter-gatherer group or impinge on an area containing a seasonal resource (overlap between ranges of different groups is frequent in the ethnographical record (Kelly 1995, 152)). Given that ‘a single sedentary village could encourage neighbouring groups to become sedentary’ (ibid.), farming communities will influence surrounding hunter-gatherer communities to decrease their mobility.

Having entered an area, agricultural communities may disrupt the social network between hunter-gatherer groups by creating a barrier separating groups from one another. In this case, the agricultural communities could become drawn into the social network due to the need for the hunter-gatherers to maintain a sufficient number of groups from which marriage partners could be drawn. If the agriculturalists are, in fact, merely hunter-gatherers groups who adopted agricultural themselves, they might already be part of the social network. Contact and exchange between hunter-gatherers and farmers could be expected to be high when they are both part of the same social network.

The original choice by hunter-gatherers to incorporate agricultural techniques into their economy could have been made on the grounds of risk reduction, just as the reason for the change to broad-spectrum subsistence economy may have been to reduce risk (Kelly 1995). ‘Risk’ refers to ‘unpredictable variation in some ecological or economic variable (over time and/or space)’ (ibid., 100), and agriculture, in providing a way to control a resource, offers a way to control risk. Agriculture produce would not at first be a major resource but rather an insurance against failure of other resources. However, even limited agriculture may cause changes in the hunter-gatherers’ cultures and economies, possibly encouraging storing (instead of wasting any surplus agricultural produce it could be stored for consumption at a later date, perhaps for a lean period in the annual cycle), population growth (having reduced risk there would no longer be a need to keep the population at a level greatly beneath the carry capacity of the environment, and if the carry capacity of the area fell, instead of a population decrease the shortfall in food could be made up by increased agricultural produce) and sedentism (which would be a result of storage and population growth). Population growth would require an increase in food, which would have to be answered by increasing agricultural output as the productivity of the wild exploitable resources should already have been reached. Furthermore the population in excess of the wild resource-based carry capacity of the area would not be able to forage without reducing the overall foraging efficiency of the group (see Kelly 1995, 219) and so would be obliged to channel their energy into agriculture instead. The intensification of agricultural production would increase the return-rate, which would further encourage reliance on farming.

Social factors could also play a part in the initial decision to adopt farming. Dennell (1985) has stressed the possible role of younger group members in the transition to agriculture, and suggests an analogy with modern Third World countries where Western styles and attitudes are ‘most often manifested among subadults and young adults’ (ibid., 124). This is an interesting point, for power and authority in hunter-gatherer societies is sometimes found in the hands of the elders, thus the younger adults could see agriculture and the agriculturalists as a means of gaining prestige and social power. This would result in a shift in the power relationships between elders and young adults, which could weaken social cohesion and open the way to cultural change – and, likely, economic change.

Hodder (1990) has suggested that it was mostly through the house, or domus, that expression and exploration of cultural identity occurred, which paved the way for economic change:

‘[I]n early societies the house would have evoked certain emotions including security and the social and cultural as opposed to the wild and natural. It seems possible, therefore, that … a creative link was made which was to have lasting and expanding consequences. The household is a production unit and it is through that production that the larger social unit is to be constructed. But it is also a conceptual unit opposed to the wild, the dangerous and the unsocial. By linking the matter and ideal of the house to the matter and ideal of social reproduction, the social desire for aggregations and intensification was channelled’ (ibid., 38).

Population growth and sedentism will encourage social complexity. Egalitarian societies are characterized by sharing; resources obtained by the individual are shared among the group. There are a number of positive benefits from sharing, but only within small groups (Kelly 1995). Thus, as population density rises sharing will diminish, leading to inequality between individuals and from there to social stratification. Sedentism on the one hand may increase logistical mobility, but will decrease the total area of land from which resources are exploited. Therefore the total amount of foraged resources will drop, requiring further agricultural intensification. Intensive agricultural will require communal organisation, which may also lead to social complexity. Once social complexity develops, a reliance on agriculture as the major source of food (thereby completing the transition from mesolithic to neolithic economy), if not already established, will probably follow.

The initial adoption of agriculture, and the progress to an agricultural-based economy in favour of a foraging-based economy, will happen at different rates in different areas, depending on the social relationships between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, available wild resources, population density and the local environment’s suitability for farming.

This model for the change to agriculture is specifically concerned with egalitarian hunter-gatherers. Although some features of the model may equally apply to complex hunter-gatherers, many will not due to differences between the two types of society. Where complex hunter-gatherers are concerned, social and economic transformation would appear to better treated more specifically, with reference to particular circumstances of a given region or society, and as such an explanation of the change to agriculture for complex hunter-gatherer societies is beyond the scope of this report to adequately deal with.

A number of assumptions are made in the model presented, which should be made clear. Firstly, I have followed the modern consensus on diffusion rather than replacement as the main cause of the spread of agriculture into and throughout north-west Europe. There is no concrete proof for either argument and further investigation is needed before the matter is certain. The study of skeletal evidence (e.g. Vencl 1986, Jacobs 1993) and the DNA of past populations could prove very useful in resolving this issue. Perhaps with more information a more complex picture will emerge, and it could very well be that the transition to agriculture was accomplished by diffusion and adoption in some places, and colonization and replacement in others, as has been suggested (e.g. Zvelebil 1986b).

Secondly, the model on the whole assumes that relationships between hunter-gatherers and farmers were fairly peaceful. Warfare is generally thought not to have been much of an issue in the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, but this may be due to a lack of evidence in the archaeological record and a trend in archaeological and ethnological perspectives which discounts or down plays violence in pre-state societies (Keeley 1996). These two factors operating together could easily explain the current belief in a warfare-free Mesolithic-Neolithic transition: any evidence for warfare found in the archaeological record will be subject to misinterpretation, and published misinterpretations will reinforce the image of a peaceful prehistory. This situation seems to be improving, with some archaeologists at least noting the strange absence of conflict during this period (Dennell 1985), or suggesting that warfare might not survive well in the archaeological record (Vencl 1986). How violence between hunter-gatherers and farmers would affect the transition to agriculture in the long-term is difficult to predict; it may simply slow the process (by inhibiting friendly contact and exchange) or prevent it entirely, making the transition in such an area possibly a population replacement (the farmers killing the hunter-gatherers and possessing their land) or the agricultural frontier may be pushed back (by the hunter-gatherers killing the farmers). Interactions between hunter-gatherers and farmers would have varied from region to region, and better archaeological information may indicate where relations between the two were friendly and where they were not.

The picture, then, of the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, based on all the evidence considered (only a fraction of which is included in this text), is of a gradual process. Neolithic hallmarks, such as pottery, cereals and domesticated animals, were integrated into hunter-gatherer economy as it suited the hunter-gatherers to do so, and change was, on the whole, slow. The end result was not the establishment of a uniform neolithic culture across north-west Europe, but a mosaic of different societies developed from a fusion of the new and the old which, as a consequence of interplaying internal and external dynamics, produced something including elements of both and elements entirely original (e.g. megaliths (Patton 1994, Sherratt 1990, 1994)).

What does this conclusion mean in the broader context of archaeological thought and theory? It seems that a restructuring of the way in which change in the archaeological record is interpreted has occurred. Not so long ago most change was taken to indicate a sudden, dramatic and usually extensive transformation, as witnessed by terms such as ‘the Neolithic Revolution,’ and when this change spread from one place to another it was usually concluded that migration or expansion were the cause. Today change is more commonly perceived as a process, resulting from an adaptation or development of an aspect of the pre-existing cultural structure, and the appearance of the same change in another area can be explained as a movement of information. Continuation from, and between, one state and the next is taken into account, and the transitions of history are made smoother, more natural and less traumatic.


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